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Keystone Oaks boys basketball makes most of its opportunities

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Erat Okok and the Keystone Oaks boys basketball team are head to the WPIAL playoffs for the first time since 2012.
Top high school sports
Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

When asked what his team has had to overcome during his first season with the team, Keystone Oaks boys basketball coach Tony Cherico was quick to reply with a lighthearted answer to a loaded question.

“How much time do you have?”

The Golden Eagles have had a season full of struggles that led to a 5-16 record. First, Cherico began installing his system during a shortened offseason after being hired in the summer.

Then starting point guard Kobe Phillippi missed the entire season due to an injury he suffered during the football season.

Along the way the team had to deal with several injuries, not to mention players needing to contend with personal setbacks.

“Plus getting to know each other and learning the way I coach,” Cherico said. “I told the players what we do in November and December isn't as important as what we do in January and February.”

That take to the season proved to be helpful. While Keystone Oaks has only five wins, they were enough to punch a ticket to the Golden Eagles' first playoffs since 2012.

After an 0-9 start, Keystone Oaks scored a pair of wins over Waynesburg and McGuffey. The deciding game came Jan. 21 as the team defeated South Park, 72-69.

“We knew this game was the one we had to win,” Cherico said. “We knew we had to beat them once.”

The 5-7 mark tied Keystone Oaks with the Eagles in fourth place at 5-7 in the Section 5-AAA standings.

Chartiers Valley finished on top of the section with a 12-0 record, Montour was second with a 10-2 mark and South Fayette came in third at 8-4.

Cherico praised the effort of Taylor Lehman — a Penn State baseball recruit — for changing his style of play. The 6-foot-5 forward was a shooter for the team in past seasons but was asked to extend his role near the basket this season.

“We needed him to play with his back to the basket to help defend the rim,” Cherico said. “He has done a really nice job of that. He really stepped up the scoring for us.”

With veterans like Erat Okok, Braydon Griffiths and Walt Hepner leading the charge, Keystone Oaks has continued to improve with each game.

“The bottom line is we competed with teams down the stretch,” Cherico said. “We didn't let teams roll over us as the season went on.”

The postseason experience will be helpful no matter what the outcome. Keystone Oaks has a group of six freshman and five sophomores and juniors. While the team will be looking at a young roster, the extra practice time will be beneficial.

“We saw great improvement from our junior varsity team,” Cherico said. “They were like a blank canvas, and we saw great development from them.

We will have three or four players who will make a big impact on next year's team.”

And for the seniors, it will be the payoff for their dedication to the team.

“They wanted a second chance to make their senior season special,” Cherico said. “They will remember this whatever our seed is or whoever we play.

“It is something to get excited about.”

Nathan Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or via Twitter @Nsmith_Trib.

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